“Music Theory” or “Guitar Theory” is a term that might scare some people off. Luckily for me, I was always intrigued by it starting from a short time after I picked up the guitar, which was the first instrument I played.
I realized that by learning theory and diving into the “science” part of music – I can get much prettier and more sophisticated music out of my hands, understand what I am doing, communicate and jam effectively with other musicians and much more.
In this self-learners-friendly world that we live in today, we can be grateful that you can learn everything you want about music and guitar theory just by using materials that are found online and at the touch of a button. This definitely was not possible up until just 20 years ago! So let's start to see how we can take advantage of this fact:
Trying to become a musician without knowing music theory is like an attempt to be an engineer without ever opening a book about your engineering subject. So today I want to show you a few good reasons to start (or keep advancing) to enrich yourself with music theory and also suggest the best educational tools that have helped me.
*Originally posted May '16, updated March '18.
SO why should I bother with learning music theory as a guitarist?
1 – Music Theory Dramatically Shortens the Curve of Becoming a GOOD Guitar Player
When you know WHAT you are doing, everything makes sense, and you're not shooting in the dark anymore. Your musical path becomes much clearer, and you will become good much faster. Studying theory can save you YEARS of messing around.
2 – It Turns You Slowly Into a Real Musician and Let's You Understand Music as a Language
By knowing the shape of a C, G, and Am chord on your guitar you are on your way, but I'm sure it's still hard for you to consider yourself a musician. (in whichever way that makes you feel good when you can think that about yourself) There's much more than that to go through on your way. Music is really its own language.
What's cool about music is that it's universal for all the instruments, all the countries, and all the languages as well. New doors will open to you everywhere when you learn the language of music – by understanding the theory behind it – and you will be able to communicate musically and effectively with other musicians. Which brings us to the next point…
3 – You Will Be Able to JAM and IMPROVISE with Other People and Make Beautiful Music Together
When it comes down to jamming, for me this has been the most practical place where I put my theory to use. There is nothing that I love more than the sounds of a couple of instruments playing together. It doesn't even matter which instruments.
By knowing your theory, you can CREATE stuff that will make people really say “damn. That's nice!” upon hearing it. Without knowing theory, when approaching a jam, it will probably be a series of trial & error musical incidents, with a big emphasis on the error part… (;
Notice how I'm playing the improvising and solo parts on the Fender guitar in the video below. (theory + practice = you'll do this too)
4 – It's FUN!
I believe that if you are here, we both share the passion for music. Unlike studying physics or biology when you are in high school (and probably find those classes pretty boring…) here we are enriching ourselves and becoming smarter about one of the biggest, or THE biggest passion that we have in life.
5 – It Will Open the Doors to ANY Other Instrument You Will Choose to Pick Up
I play several instruments, some of them are my main focus – guitar, piano, and harmonica, and some of them I really play just for fun and basic jamming – flute, trumpet, melodica and recorder. By knowing theory, I was able to start playing the flute and get decent music out of it in less than a week. All I needed to do was to work with the fingering charts and understand how to play the different notes. Once I knew it, it was only about the flute-specific techniques.
Music, and the notes, are universal to all instruments, and if you already know “what to do” with those notes on the guitar – it means that you'll know “what to do with them” on every other instrument as well. What will be left – will be to learn the proper technique and note fingerings for how to get those notes out of other instruments. (on some instruments, like the violin, even playing one note properly is extremely hard, but on most others it's usually not that hard)
So if you also dream about playing a saxophone one day for example, by learning theory on your guitar you will be able to do that transition in a relatively easy way and add more instruments to your arsenal when you feel the attraction for a new instrument.
6 – You Will UNDERSTAND the Logic Behind Music – Which Means You'll Enjoy Listening to Music In New Levels and Able to Write Music From Scratch By Yourself
Even if you do not intend to write your own songs for now, this is still golden information that is useful and fun to know whenever you are approaching music.
Major keys for example, are related more with happy and upbeat music. Songs in Minor keys are “sad” sounding. The V (the 5th chord of a scale) is the peak of the “musical tension” in the song that will “beg” for a release by moving back down to the I. (the 1st chord – the root) Perfect and imperfect cadences. Pentatonic scales that sound good in any jam. Blue notes that give the “bluesy” feeling.
These are just a taste of the thousands of useful and surprising things that theory teaches you and are applicable to any form of music you can listen to. Of course, these rules are broken in a lot songs at least in one way, but they still make for good rules of thumb to follow as a beginning point.
Treat yourself with this awesome live version of Hotel California. A masterpiece. Without theory, songs (and unbelievably beautiful riffs and solos) like this one could have never come to life.
7 – You Will Be Able to Create A Fresh and Unique Sound to Any Song You Choose
By knowing your theory, and especially with the guitar in your hands, you will understand that there are DOZENS of different ways to play every chord and every song, each one of them sounds different compared to the other, and some of them sound really unique.
By altering chords in the songs you play, and embellishing your music with catchy riffs and licks, you can create a fresh and beautiful sound to everything, and give yourself The Musical Edge™ over all the “regular” players.
OK! So I Want to Dig Into Some Guitar Theory. What's the Best Way to Do It?
Only one regret I have about theory, and this is the fact that I did not start learning it in an organized way, and instead I learned from “here and there” articles around the web.
Later, I discovered a book called Guitar Theory Revolution. I believe this book has the best method of teaching theory to guitar players, and it opened countless new roads on the fretboard for me – because it teaches theory in a way that is aimed especially at guitar players. (instead of how most books teach – by referring to a piano)
You gotta realize that as a guitar player you have an advantage in the ease of learning theory over anyone else in music besides piano players, and even this one is open to debates. A lot of people say that actually, guitar is the easiest instrument to learn theory on (I partially agree). Why do people say that? because of the way the guitar is tuned around the circle of 4ths and 5ths, (if you don't know what it is, don't worry about it right now) everything will make sense to you very quickly, and the theory, especially the more advanced stuff, will “fall into your fingers”.
The second best book that I read for music theory is “The Complete Idiot's Guide To Music Theory“. It is very detailed and will be a good fit for you especially if you are not a guitarist, or if you finished reading Guitar Theory Revolution and want even more insights and different ideas on incorporating music theory into your music.
That's it, go get your theory tools and start going at it. I promise that your guitar journeys and the pleasure you experience from them are going to step up a notch very quickly if you do so.
I hope you enjoyed reading. Best! -Cooper